Low salary, no overtime and injured, but they like Singapore

Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Articles, Stories


By Meera Rajah

“Why Singapore?” – Ishwar Singh and Pardeep Kumar appear slightly perplexed as to how to answer this direct question, somewhat aware of the vague implications surrounding it.

Ishwar (above, right) has now been in Singapore for five years. Pardeep (above left) has been here for slightly longer. Having arrived in 2007, this marks his seventh year here. Both left Haryana and Chandigarh, respectively, while still in their (late) teens. Each had spent approximately eleven years in school, leaving shortly after senior school. Pardeep was only 18 years old when he first arrived in Singapore.

“India not many jobs,” Ishwar explains. His parents are farmers in a small village; the city is “very far” off. He is the youngest of three siblings, a small household compared to his father’s family of ten. Even while in school, he had fantasies of the city, the migrant dream of a better, brighter future, and when he decided he’d leave Haryana to chase his dream, his parents didn’t object.

“[India] also no guarantee money coming and going”, Pardeep chimes in. He is the eldest of his three siblings; his parents too are farmers. They encouraged him to leave Chandigarh, he tells me. They wanted him to go somewhere they believed “money have… everybody have”, even if it was more than 3,000 miles away.

However, neither man seem able to tell us exactly why they chose to come to Singapore instead of Dubai or Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it was too long ago.

The fact that neither of them had any friends who could give them a first-hand account of life in Singapore did not deter them. They – rather naively – placed their wholehearted faith in the job agents they had just met. Both their agents requested a ‘commission’ of $6,000 – not inclusive of air fees or the like — on promises that they could easily earn back the sum in Singapore: The agents ‘estimated’ that they would earn a figure between $1,200 to $2,000 per month.

Upon arriving in Singapore, it became obvious to Ishwar and Pardeep that they had been duped.

Ishwar’s first salary was $700 a month – approximately half what his agent had ‘guaranteed’. Pardeep’s first was a mere $245, partly because there was no work to be done in the first fifteen days subsequent to his arrival. In fact, the company had very little work at all through the course of his first contract. “Agent cannot hundred percent trust”, Pardeep reflects with the benefit of hindsight. Faced with a dire financial situation, he told the agent that the picture he had painted was rather incongruent with reality, but despite the agent’s promises to “return your money”, Pardeep was unable to recover even a cent of the $6,000 fee.

These two are not alone. False representations by agents are a widespread problem amongst the migrant worker population in Singapore.

Electrician and carpenter

Ishwar’s first job involved dismantling lifts, taking out screws and parts. When this job ended, he flew back to Haryana for a break. While there, a friend told him about opportunities in an electrical company in Singapore – his friend had worked at the company for four years and was content with his job. He was paid $27 a day. Now wary of agents, Ishwar chose to contact the company directly and paid $1,500 — not clear to whom though, possibly a fixer within the company or the company itself — to secure the job. He speaks of this as a bargain: After all, this was a quarter of the $6,000 he had paid his first agent and slightly less than twice the $800 that his first company had (illegally) charged him to renew his work permit.

At this new job, Ishwar earned $22 a day, picking up a new trade in the process. Despite the fact that he not had any formal training as an electrician, he progressed from the role of